Roving Rabbis

Spring Missions Complete, Roving Rabbis Turn Sights on Summer

May 5, 2011 9:30 AM
A visiting Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical student uses a blowtorch to kosher kitchen equipment as part of Passover preparations in Cusco, Peru.
A visiting Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical student uses a blowtorch to kosher kitchen equipment as part of Passover preparations in Cusco, Peru.

This year, 650 young rabbinical students left their families for Passover, choosing instead to bring the holiday spirit to Jewish communities all over the world. Travelling to such far-flung locales as Iceland, Italy, China, India, Rwanda, Ghana, New Zealand, Poland and Russia – and some places closer to home, like Texas, Florida and California – the teams of dedicated volunteers did whatever was required so that locals and tourists alike could celebrate the eight-day festival of freedom.

Dispatched from Brooklyn, N.Y., by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, the young men are popularly known as “Roving Rabbis.” Many of their experiences over the past several weeks were followed by thousands of people from the students’ collective blog hosted by the Judaism website Chabad.org.

“The goal of this program is to give every Jew, no matter where he or she may be, the opportunity to participate in a Passover Seder,” said Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch. “The young rabbis make the Passover experience accessible, inviting, and relevant to every Jew, everywhere.”

“This year was definitely the biggest so far,” stated program coordinator Rabbi Schneur Nejar. “In past years, there were times I had to try to fill positions. This year though, we were full almost immediately after we opened registration for volunteers.”

To prepare for their missions, the young recruits were briefed on their assignments and counseled by veterans of past trips. For many, the isolation of some locations can present a shock.

“In some of the more remote locations,” Nejar explained, “the boys have to do everything. They are rabbis, cooks, and janitors.”

They left Brooklyn with boxes of prayer books and handmade matzah, cartons of kosher meat, and beaming smiles.

They were received with open arms.

“[Our children are] hungry for this,” said Barry Katz, a resident of Destin, Fla., as he watched his child participate in a model matzah bakery organized by Levi Mentz and Hirshy Sputz.

Similar comments could be heard in all 58 countries the rabbis visited.

Departing rabbinical students receive last-minute training in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Departing rabbinical students receive last-minute training in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Eileen Mills of Kenai, Alaska, said that meeting with the two roving rabbis that came to her area bolstered her spirit. She hadn’t seen another observant Jew since she moved there 11 years ago, and savored the opportunity to speak about religious and cultural issues.

In Poland, a local man walking through the Warsaw ghetto donned the Jewish prayer boxes known as tefillin for the first time when he met other roving rabbis. Afterwards, he thanked them profusely.

“It’s about showing love to all the Jewish people,” explained Boruch Gancz, who was dispatched to Marquette, Mich.

Nejar is currently focusing on the summer, when the next crop of rabbinical students will spend several weeks in places not served by full-time Chabad-Lubavich emissaries. With an average of 500 volunteers who sign up, it takes a lot of planning.

“The boys work hard,” he said, “and every year it’s a success.”

Army of Workers Prepare One of World’s Largest Passover Seders

May 4, 2011 9:35 AM

Home to the ruins of an ancient Incan capital, Cusco, Peru, annually draws thousands of Israeli backpackers searching for adventures after their mandatory army service.

Its Chabad-Lubavitch center, which Rabbi Ofer and Yael Kripor opened in 2006, serves as a home away from home for such travelers, offering kosher food, Torah classes, Sabbath services and holiday celebrations.

Last month, the center’s staff grew with the addition of rabbinical students dispatched by Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, who arrived to help run what has quickly become of the largest Passover Seders in the world.

Click here to view the photo gallery.

Marching On

May 2, 2011 1:32 PM

After a successful Passover here in Krakow, we are not yet packing our bags. Instead, we are brushing up our culinary skills. The March of The Living, which began on April 27, has brought thousands of Jews from all over the world to Poland. They will spend a week here, traveling around the country, learning about the history of the Holocaust. We have koshered the hotel’s kitchen and are offering them kosher food, under the supervision of Rabbi Eliezer Gurary, the local Chabad Rabbi.

Participants in the March will visit the historic Jewish sites in Warsaw and Krakow, and the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Majdanek. Although the vibrant Jewish life that once thrived is no longer, we will be there, Tefillin in hand, ready to spread the light of Judaism once again. In a place where the anguish of our past is so evident, we will look towards the future, every Mitzvah bringing us closer to a world of eternal good.

Tefillin For Ron in Ibadan

May 1, 2011 10:37 PM

The plan was to travel to the nearby city of Ibadan and spend the Shabbat before Passover with the five Jewish families who have lived there together for many years. While their children were fluent in Hebrew, they knew absolutely nothing about Judaism. We spent hours Friday night regaling the open-mouthed children with stories about Passover and their Jewish heritage.

Imagine our surprise on Shabbat morning when we discovered that one of the children, Ron, was turning thirteen today! His parents knew that his Bar Mitzvah was on the Jewish date of 12 Nissan, but did not know when that would be. We explained to them that on this day Jewish boys begin to put on tefillin, black leather boxes containing parchment scrolls inscribed with biblical passages, worn during weekday morning prayers. When we informed them that we had an extra pair of tefillin with us, they asked to purchase them for Ron.

Saturday night we went over to Ron’s house and taught him how to put on the tefillin, what to say when wearing them and how to wrap them up when he was done.

That night, Ron innocently turned to his father and asked him if he would join him every morning in putting on tefillin. His father, who had not put on tefillin since his own bar mitzvah, not only agreed, but taught his son the proper way to wash his hands before putting them on. As the prophecy states regarding the coming of the redemption, “the hearts of fathers will be returned by their sons.” We saw this happen before our eyes.

On Sunday we returned to Lagos, thinking that our encounter with Ron and his family was over. Lo and behold, we soon received a phone call from Ron, inquiring if he is allowed to share his tefillin with the other people in the complex. This child, who knew virtually nothing about Judaism, was so thrilled with his newfound Jewish observance that he couldn’t wait to share it with others.

The story’s not over . . .

While calling different Jews in the region, making sure that their Seder plans were settled, we got in touch with a Jew who lived in another part of Ibadan. We arranged for him to go to Ron’s father to pick up matzah. As we were concluding our conversation, he asked if it’s possible for us to teach him the proper way to wrap up his tefillin. He said not knowing how to pack them up made him reluctant to put them on every day. We were happy to inform him that when he picks up his matzah, he can get a hands-on tutorial from Ron, who had learned the correct way just the previous night.

We think we are going to remote destinations around the world to inspire others. Yet somehow, we are the ones who return most inspired of all.